Cross­ing guards for grown-ups? Yes, NYC traf­fic is that bad

The Island Packet (Sunday) - - News - BY WIN­NIE HU

Elaine Ves­per­mann waited on the cor­ner for his lead.

Only when Pre­ston Martin charged across six lanes of rush-hour traf­fic did she fol­low be­hind him. He waved at cars to keep them at bay. He watched over her un­til she reached the other side of the street.

Af­ter too many close calls, Ves­per­mann, 38, a baby sit­ter, does not like to cross by her­self any­more. “He helps, al­ways,” she said. “It’s very hard ev­ery day. There are too many cars and the peo­ple are crazy some­times.”

New York City’s in­creas­ingly fre­netic streetscape has be­come a gant­let for pedes­tri­ans forced to tra­verse mul­ti­ple traf­fic lanes, weave around blocked in­ter­sec­tions and side­step bi­cy­cles and scoot­ers whizzing by – all be­fore the light turns red. It is Martin’s job to make sure no one gets run over.

While school cross­ing guards have long shep­herded chil­dren across the street, the city’s traf­fic has be­come so per­ilous that now even grown-ups need cross­ing guards. Of­fi­cially known as pedes­trian safety man­agers, they are vig­i­lant es­corts across some of the city’s busiest in­ter­sec­tions.

They are not the traf­fic po­lice; they can­not hand out tick­ets and their fo­cus is not on keep­ing cars mov­ing. In­stead, they are body­guards for pedes­tri­ans. As soon as the walk sign flashes, they are the first ones into the cross­walk. They shadow the el­derly, the young and any­one need­ing ex­tra time or care. They watch over ev­ery­one – espe­cially those too dis­tracted by tex­ting or talk­ing to watch out for them­selves.

So far, they are a fix­ture in just one Man­hat­tan neigh­bor­hood – Hud­son Square, a fast-grow­ing com­mer­cial hub that is about to be­come even more crowded with Google plan­ning a $1 bil­lion cam­pus for up to 7,000 work­ers.

“The traf­fic is over­whelm­ing,” said Doris Gar­cia, 44, a mother of four from Brook­lyn who su­per­vises the pedes­trian safety man­agers in heat, rain and snow. “Pedes­tri­ans yell at driv­ers. If driv­ers don’t lis­ten, some­times we have to put our whole body in the in­ter­sec­tion just to stop the cars.”

Across the city, 106 pedes­tri­ans were killed in crashes with mo­tor ve­hi­cles last year and more than 10,700 other pedes­tri­ans were in­jured, ac­cord­ing to traf­fic data.

The pedes­trian man­agers stand guard over one of the city’s worst choke points: where Var­ick Street feeds into the Hol­land Tun­nel. An av­er­age of 40,742 ve­hi­cles go through the tun­nel ev­ery week­day to New Jer­sey and be­yond, of­ten back­ing up onto Var­ick.

In­creas­ingly, this snaking tun­nel traf­fic is com­pet­ing with throngs of new­com­ers to Hud­son Square. The neigh­bor­hood was once home to print­ing presses and other man­u­fac­tur­ers, but has been rein­vented as a thriv­ing com­mer­cial area with more than 1,000 com­pa­nies, many in tech­nol­ogy, me­dia and ad­ver­tis­ing. It has more than 50,000 work­ers and thou­sands of new res­i­dents fol­low­ing a 2013 city re­zon­ing.

The stretch of Var­ick be­tween Hous­ton and Spring streets has be­come one of the most dan­ger­ous in Man­hat­tan. Though there have been no deaths, 119 peo­ple – in­clud­ing 40 pedes­tri­ans and nine cy­clists – were hurt in crashes from 2012 to 2016, the most re­cent year avail­able.

Ellen Baer, pres­i­dent of the Hud­son Square Busi­ness Im­prove­ment District, came up with the idea for pedes­trian man­agers in 2011, af­ter see­ing traf­fic man­agers ex­pertly move peo­ple around a con­struc­tion site at the World Trade Cen­ter.

JEENAH MOON NYT

Pre­ston Martin works as a pedes­trian safety man­ager – a cross­ing guard for grown-ups – on Var­ick Street, near the en­trance to the Hol­land Tun­nel in New York. The Man­hat­tan neigh­bor­hood has sta­tioned the work­ers at crowded in­ter­sec­tions. It costs $300,000 a year.

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